HOSTING a lavish dinner for Everest climbers from Pune in the capital last Tuesday, Sharad Pawar appeared unconcerned about the political cliffhanger being written at his own doorstep. Pawar-baiters, afforded a golden opportunity by the defeat of Sonia Gandhi nominee Ram Pradhan in the Rajya Sabha elections, had stepped up their proxy battle against the Maratha leader. The objective: to "finish him off". But neither is Pawar finished nor can the Congress afford to wipe him out.
Ten indignant MLAs from Maharashtra, the latest in a string of Pawar men to be targeted by the high command after Pradhan's defeat, had landed in New Delhi to answer showcause notices for having signed nomination forms of non-official candidate and Pawar's former lieutenant, Arun Mehta. Would their explanations be accepted? Would charges against MP and Pawar associate Praful Patel be dropped? Would ousted MPCC chief Ranjit Deshmukh, a Pawar supporter who willy-nilly accepted responsibility for the debacle, be replaced by an anti-Pawar man? Would pro-Pawar MLAs Madhukar Pichad and Chhagan Bhujbal be the next targets? Or would it be Pawar himself?
No answers were forthcoming from 10, Janpath as "Madam" refused to meet the MLAs, directing them to the AICC secretary in charge of Maharashtra, Madhavrao Scindia. Not to be outdone, Pawar retired into his shell, adopting a hands-off attitude towards Maharashtra and letting his supporters do the talking.
If the Congress president appeared to be reacting cautiously, it was because she was receiving contradictory advice. Pawar-baiters, Arjun Singh chief among them, had told her the anti-incumbency wave in Maharashtra would ensure a sweeping victory for the Congress in the next election, Pawar or no Pawar. It was time to put the pretender in his place; by appointing an anti-Pawar man as MPCC chief, she could show him who was boss. And if he quit the party, so much the better, as not a single MP would go with him. "I told her, I told her to finish him off," gushed a septuagenarian Congress leader from the South. On a recent visit to Bombay, a CWC member made quiet enquiries about the likely response to Pawar's exit from the party.
Another section of Congress leaders took a more sober view. "We have strongly adviced Madam not to push Pawar any further," said a senior leader from the South, who is not aligned with the Maratha strongman. To do so would be counter-productive for the party as a whole. A non-Pawar man, they pointed out, would find it very diffi-cult to function in Maharashtra, as even the "neutral" Sushilkumar Shinde had discovered during a stint as MPCC chief. For a nominee openly opposed to him, matters would be that much more complicated. Besides, by targeting Pawar men, Sonia had shown that she called the shots. "Nothing can be gained by confrontations. We must all pull together if we are to strengthen the party," points out Pawar supporter P.C. Chacko.
Pawar's role in the Congress sweep during the general elections ought not to be underestimated, cautions a Maharashtra MP: "The victory in the state was not a result of increased voteshare—in fact, the Shiv Sena-BJP voteshare went up—but of political engineering. By doing the near-impossible and bringing all four sections of the RPI together, plus roping in the Samajwadi Party, Pawar consolidated the anti-Sena vote. No one else could have managed it". On the other hand, he acknowledges, Sonia's takeover as party president did enhance the Congress' credibility vis-a-vis the RPI.
Sonia met anti-Pawar aspirants for the post of MPCC chief, among them Vilasrao Deshmukh, Prataprao Bhon-sle and Nilangekar Patil, but has deferred the choice of Deshmukh's successor. While clean-as-a-whistle, young and dynamic Prithviraj Chauhan is regarded as a good choice, he would prefer to have Pawar's endorsement for the
post. Former speaker Shivraj Patil is another neutral candidate, while Shinde has reportedly refused. Deshmukh continues to be de facto chief.
Pawar, who spent a decade in the political wilderness after quitting the Congress, would think twice before doing so again. He would, say his supporters, quite happily position himself as the number one or two in the Congress hierarchy. He enjoys an excellent equation with Manmohan Singh, Sonia's choice for PM in case she declines. But this does not suit his detractors, as there are plenty of aspirants to the number two slot—Scindia, Rajesh Pilot, Arjun Singh. And so far, they seem to have the edge. "She is in a mood to take on Pawar. She told me it is not Pradhan but the principle that mattered," said an elated supporter of Pawar-baiter S.B. Chavan.
SCINDIA, who was missing during the Rajya Sabha elections, has now emerged as a key negotiator. He appears to have gained Sonia's confidence of late. Party sources say he's glad Pawar has got his come-uppance. Scindia and former Speaker P.A. Sangma were both in the running for Pawar's job as leader of the Opposition. Sonia had appointed Pawar in order to avoid an election but his detractors would like to see him bow out. Says Gurudas Kamat, Pawar loyalist: "The steps they are taking may seem like they are against Pawar but I am sure the choice of MPCC president will be someone acceptable to all sides."
Pawar's men claim to have identified 12 MLAs allegedly responsible for the Congress debacle; the dirty dozen cross-voted as part of a conspiracy against the Maratha leader. But that didn't cut any ice with Sonia, who went on to target Patel, Deshmukh and 10 MLAs, at a time when Pawar was holidaying abroad. But Gandhi's long-term strategy vis-a-vis Pawar will be clear only when Deshmukh's successor is announced.
Pawar's strategy is one of wait and watch, an attitude which evokes both sympathy and pique. Sympathy, because he is being targeted by the increasingly unpopular coterie around Sonia. Pique, because he appears weak and ineffectual in protecting his own. Pawar did mount a counter-attack by saying the showcause notice was "unwarranted". But his supporters feel he should have dared Sonia to take action against him.
Pawar has three choices. He can float a regional party; split the Congress and take advantage of the BJP's standing offer to join its government; or become part of the "third force" in a United Front-like combine. Or he can grimace and bear it.